War Stories

Promises, Promises

What happens if the Iraqis fail again?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

If George W. Bush had delivered Wednesday night’s speech two years ago, he would have deserved praise for candor, equanimity, and breadth of vision. But given its actual timing, one can only wonder about his grip on reality.

His new plan for victory—which he laid out after admitting that the old plan has been bankrupt for nearly a year—is a declaration of great faith or cruel cynicism. Congress won’t stop him, so we can all hope the new plan works somehow (President Bush is right that defeat would be disastrous), but let’s at least wade into the big muddy with our eyes open.

First, the “surge” turns out to be even paltrier than press leaks have suggested. Its dimensions are as reported—about 20,000 additional U.S. troops sent to Iraq, more than three-quarters of them to Baghdad, the rest of Anbar province—but, it turns out, they are to be mobilized gradually, a brigade or two at a time, over the next few months.

The Army’s recently published field manual on counterinsurgency—co-authored by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, soon to be the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq—emphasizes that these sorts of campaigns need early successes to inspire confidence in the local populace, who will be watching carefully and taking sides accordingly. The manual also notes that successes, in general, require a massive superiority in manpower. To escalate, er, surge gradually (which may be all that’s physically possible), works against our prospects from the get-go.

Second, the president said that Iraqi security forces will take the lead in this operation, while the Americans will play a supporting role, mainly as embedded advisers within Iraqi units. In fact, he suggested at one point that Iraqi troops will outnumber American troops by 3-to-1. (The United States will embed a “brigade with every Iraqi Army division,” Bush said; a division is roughly equal to three brigades.) In principle, this is a good idea—it’s the Iraqis’ country, after all—but is it plausible? Where are these 60,000 additional Iraqi troops coming from? Are they any good? Do they represent a national army, or are they—as suggested by several real-life operations lately—merely militias disguised in national uniform? When the United States threw several thousand troops into Baghdad this past fall, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised to contribute six Iraqi battalions (fewer than 10,000 troops); only two battalions showed up. What has happened in the past couple months to suggest next month’s call-up will prove much more fruitful? According to some reports, Maliki will send in the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia. But the peshmerga tend not to regard themselves as part of the Iraqi army, and the people of Baghdad aren’t inclined to put their trust in Kurds, either. (And trust is the issue. As Bush said, these Iraqi forces will be “conducting patrols, setting up checkpoints, and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents.”)

Third, it is not clear where this surge, such as it is, is going. President Bush declared tonight that America’s commitment is “not open-ended” and that “America will hold the Iraqi government to … benchmarks.” However, he said nothing about what will happen if the Iraqis fail to meet those benchmarks. And without a warning (even a sternly intoned “or else!”), benchmarks mean nothing.

And let’s look at those benchmarks. Bush said that the Iraqi government has promised “to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq’s provinces by November.” It “will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis.” It will “spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure.” It will “hold provincial elections later this year,” to empower local leaders, especially Sunni leaders. And, in a further effort to co-opt Sunni insurgency, it “will reform de-Baathification laws and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq’s constitution.”

When did all these promises get made? Where did Maliki suddenly get the political power, or even the political audacity, to make them? One obstacle to reconstruction has been pervasive corruption within the Iraqi ministries; how does he hope to clean that up? The call for provincial elections has been ignored for months. The Shiite-led government promised to amend the constitution—with special attention to altering the language on oil revenue sharing and de-Baathification—back when the constitution was ratified; it has refused to bring up the issues ever since.

What about Iraqi politics has changed that now permits Maliki to do all these things, most of which the factions of his fragile ruling coalition have thus far refused to do?

Speaking of his fragile coalition, how will Maliki get away with letting American troops raid the Baghdad enclaves of the Mahdi Army, Muqtada Sadr’s radical Shiite militia? Without the support of Sadr’s faction, Maliki’s government will fall. It would be great if Maliki could assemble a coalition without Sadr; but unless something is going on deep behind the scenes, there’s no indication that he can.

As Bush said, the whole point of this surge is to help assure the survival, durability, and legitimacy of a central Iraqi government. If the government founders on these sorts of issues, an influx of American troops—whether they number 20,000 or 200,000—won’t matter.

This leads to the cynical interpretation of tonight’s speech: The benchmarks place such an overwhelming burden on Maliki’s government, he’ll unavoidably fail to meet them; when this failure becomes clear, and the American surge does little to improve matters, Bush—or, better still, his successor—will pull out with a shrug and the patina of good conscience, absolving himself of blame for the deluge that follows. Whether or not the leaders of the White House devised the new plan with this scenario in mind (and I don’t think they did), it offers a tempting way out if worse comes to dead worst.

But here we come to this speech’s most dreadful shortcoming: Bush’s failure to outline any backup plan at all if his plan comes to naught. Worse still, he strongly suggested that he will resist such a plan. A realistic backup plan would rely on region-wide diplomacy to keep the conflagration of all-out civil war from spreading across the Middle East.

Halfway into the speech, it seemed for a moment that Bush might address this issue. “Succeeding in Iraq also requires … stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge,” he said, a task that “begins with addressing Iran and Syria.” But then, instead of calling for, say, talks with those countries, Bush said that their regimes have provided material support to the insurgents. “We will disrupt the attacks on our forces,” the president warned. “We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

Really? All we can muster for Iraq is a paltry 20,000 extra troops; even they will accomplish little without massive infusions from a dubious Iraqi military and miraculous political breakthroughs from a faltering Iraqi government—and President Bush, at such a desperate moment, talks about expanding the war to Iran and Syria? It’s shiveringly scary.